It's Just Lunch Matchmaking Makes it into the Mainstream

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It's Just Lunch works like a dating service with matchmaking by its associates who arrange either a casual lunch or drinks date at a restaurant with the understanding that (1) it's a blind date and (2) it's separate checks.

Betty Sinclair was in college when she first proposed a match between two friends. It wasn't an immediate union, being that the fellow already had a girlfriend. But time proved Sinclair's instincts right when the suggested couple later dated and married. She's still gloating.

"If someone is going to be successful in this business, you have to love it, you have to absolutely love it," says Sinclair, owner of the Seattle franchise of It's Just Lunch!, a dating service that matches single people for dates.

No longer the domain of ambitious mothers or village elders, matchmaking a la 2004 is a niche service that helps people meet potential mates. It's an unusual career, but it is a career for those with a sixth sense about set-ups and the ability to sell something emotional and deeply personal.

The love business is popular and profitable. The business of dating — personal ads, online-dating sites, singles' excursions, video-dating services and matchmakers — is estimated to be a $1.12 billion-annual industry in the U.S. The sector grew 25 percent from 2001 to 2002, reports Marketdata Enterprises, which tracks specialized service industries.

In the city of Seattle, the potential market is large: 58 percent of adults are unmarried.

A big driver in the growth of the dating industry is believed to be the widespread acceptance of online-personal ads, such as , the world's biggest online-dating and personals service. It has close to a million subscribers.

"It has helped so much," says Nancy Kirsch, an It's Just Lunch! senior vice president. "When we first started doing this 13 years ago, it was taboo, kind of like 'Ohhh, loser.' "

Recently, she's seen the stigma of commercialized mate-meeting fading. It's become one of the acceptable, outsourced personal services that people are willing to pay for, much like housecleaning or dog-walking, says Kirsch.

Individual approaches

Zeroing in on what makes a good matchmaker is as tricky as trying to guarantee chemistry between two clients. Every matchmaker has her (yes, almost all are women) own approach. Many break into the business on their own, staging parties for single people for a price. Others go to work for an established matchmaker to learn the ropes.

But certain traits are needed: a willingness to immerse yourself in the world of dating and its details, business savvy and superlative people skills.

"Not everybody can do this kind of work," says John LaRosa, Marketdata Enterprises research director, who says the job takes a huge amount of handholding and personal involvement.

By his count, there are seven or eight matchmakers in the U.S. who earn more than a million dollars a year, mainly by working for exclusive clients whom they also groom and coach. They might network discreetly at charity balls and community events where potential clientele gather.

But that's not quite how it works in Seattle, which doesn't have any of the million-dollar matchmakers.

A transfer of skills

Word-of-mouth referrals and ads bring clients to Noel McLane, proprietor of Seattle-based Matchmaker in the Market. A former real-estate broker, McLane has been matchmaking for nearly 20 years. At the time she began, she had just sent her last child off to school.

Then a single mom, she knew firsthand that there was a need and opportunity for a professional matchmaker. (She's since found a partner.)

Her skills selling homes transferred almost seamlessly. Homes and hearts are both big investments. A matchmaker, like a real-estate agent, should be intuitive and compassionate.

Along with lengthy interviews with her, McLane's clients spend hours filling out a 20-page questionnaire, "the meat of my whole business," and make a short video. They are required to read "How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love."

Thus informed, McLane goes through her files to find a match, trying for what the client has requested — whether it's someone with a social conscience or "a woman who doesn't wear makeup while camping."

Ninety percent of the time, clients agree with her, she says. She sets them up and checks in monthly. But she doesn't pester.

"I don't want to be their mother," she says. She charges $2,000 for a yearly membership. She says she doesn't guarantee a number of dates but clients can expect at least a handful of quality introductions.

A numbers game

"It's Just Lunch! has a different philosophy. Dating is a numbers game," says Sinclair.

Clients pay $1,395 for a year's worth of matches.

It's Just Lunch! works like a dating service with matchmaking by its associates who arrange either a casual lunch or drinks date at a restaurant that understands that (1) it's a blind date and (2) it's separate checks.

The matchmakers come from different professional backgrounds that emphasize outgoing, bubbly personalities: Sinclair is a former talent scout; her colleagues include a former waitress and saleswoman.

Part of their training, they say, is keeping up with dating trends and literature by reading advice columns and popular books, such as "Date Like a Man: What Men Know About Dating and are Afraid You'll Find Out," by Myreah Moore, or "Mr. Right, Right Now!: How a Smart Woman Can Land Her Dream Man in 6 Weeks," by E. Jean Carroll.

Dating rotation

On a recent weekday morning last month, the matchmakers of It's Just Lunch! wheel out a cart of files and sit around a small round table. They start with men who haven't been out on dates recently. They weigh energy levels, interests, jobs, education levels and feedback from previous dates.

The women want to hear all about dates: what a person liked, whether telephone numbers were exchanged. What they hear about the rendezvous directs the next pairing, if necessary. One person's "active" might mean waking up early to play video games, whereas someone else would bike 70 miles.

Their advice is that if a person is possibly interested, go for another date. Even if two people hit it off, the matchmakers like to keep them in the dating rotation until things get serious. "You keep dating until you have 'the talk,' " says Sinclair.

Mysterious chemistry

The challenges of matchmaking are many. It can be tough to have an equal number of men and women subscribers, plus the pool of applicants needs to be big enough to offer viable choices.

Sometimes, people who seem so right for one another just don't hit it off. Sinclair says she's lain awake at night wondering why a certain pair didn't like each other.

"If I could find a way to bottle chemistry ... " she muses.

See It's Just Lunch at for more information

News researcher Gene Balk,, contributed to this report.

Message line for Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2218.

By Sarah Anne Wright

Seattle Times staff reporter

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